This is a guest post by Fiona Doolan. To submit a guest post to Culture Shock, see our ‘Write for Us’ page.
When I removed the tourniquet I thought definitively that I would die. I thought removing it compromised my integrity, unwrapped me like when they cut the spinal column out of the cadaver and all its weight becomes suddenly formless, the chest sinking into itself. You see, my tourniquet kept the pressure up, that external pressure. I couldn’t be relied upon to produce pressure of my own volition, I was told I was too weak, too malleable. I was so sure that, when it finally came away, my blood would slow and fill my veins, running thick and leaden. My heart would not be able to disturb its torpor, and as it pumped against the thick tide its sounds would slow, almost to nothing, the movement of my lungs with it. I would stand beside you on the T or reach out a hand to hold the elevator door and you wouldn’t feel a breath on my lips. It would be as if I were dead.
The tourniquet was the fevered way my mother would talk about her cousin, the doctor. It was the price tag of my family’s contribution to my education. It was the bitterness my father felt when his abstracts were returned from the IEEE because of the primary author’s lack of qualifications. His hunger for a higher degree to validate his expertise made him hungry for me, too, to pursue a title. The tourniquet was the expectation that by virtue of American meritocracy, as the first child of working class parents, I would take up an esteemed profession, I would be indoctrinated into the upper echelons. It was the stiff, aristocratic town I returned to at the holidays, full of people who, despite not thinking much of my parents’ education, could at least appreciate they raised a daughter to go into a respectful career. It was the grim combative way I would hear students talk about beating the curve. Volunteering, clinical work, Dean’s List, Learning Assistant, research- I surely would not have excelled at these things without the heart-hammering, fear-of-disappointment, concerted external pressure to stop at nothing less than Doctor of Medicine. The tourniquet was all there was.
When I came out and became distanced from my Irish Catholic family, the external pressure was relieved. Perhaps I underestimated my skills as a healer, because to my surprise, my body did not fail. I carried on with the things I had been doing, without the breath of expectations raising the hairs on my neck. In the deafening silence where before there had been insistent phone calls, without the comments shared by so-and-so’s mother and whether I was thinking about going MD/PhD, I realized I wanted to be a doctor.
I wanted to be a doctor, myself. I wanted this because it meant a lifetime of service, of challenging and improving my knowledge, of collaborating with other experts to administer the best care to the sick and by extension improve the lives of the people close to them. It was being proud to study and audition on behalf of women, outnumbered 9 to 1 in orthopedics, who rarely sit on institutional boards, whose matriculation rate is poorer than men’s. It was the desire to make my life fulfilling, not by others’ standards amounting to titles and vague compliments from neighbors, but by ameliorating hurt.
Those connections at home are mending. My heart is beating, my blood circulating by an intrinsic drive, and my goals are all my own. I not only can keep myself from unraveling, but my time away from external pressures allowed me to appreciate my own vitality and passion. Paradoxically, the device I once saw as the sole thing lending integrity to my aspirations was not only unnecessary, but stifling. A treatment error had been made. We are all subject to human error, just do not let yours be in undervaluing your own desires.
Fiona is a senior studying human physiology because she gets to play with real human brains. Find her playing trumpet in the band or running many laps around the oval track.